>My essay for Anthony Bourdain’s new book, “Medium Raw”.
Growing up between the southern lines of Louisiana and Mississippi, I was a product of red beans and rice on Monday and potluck casseroles on Sunday. It was here that I found communion with the food I will always be able to call my own. Collards, black eyed peas and fried chicken – the Holy Trinity.
My appreciation of good food was not always so. I didn’t know where ham came from nor did I really care. I just knew it tasted good between two pieces of Bunny bread. But please, just mayonnaise and maybe some of that yellow cheese we call “American”.
Cooking well in the South was not something attainable by average folk. It was something we watched Bobby Flay and Emeril do on our center-pieced television sets. To cook well took time, money and skill. It involved more than canned green beans, cream of mushroom soup and a box of french fried onions. Eating well was a privilege for those who could afford it.
Like many aspiring bohemians and curious 20-somethings do, I moved to Portland, Oregon. Here, along with marrying my wife, I got a job doing what most Portlanders end up doing; I started working in a café. I was trained to make coffee by (arguably) one of the best roasters in the US. I fell hard into the ebb and flow of the food and beverage industry.
I serve food and drink to wealthy patrons of one of the more high-end districts of Portland. I’ve put my hours in cleaning toilets, washing dishes and digging cigarette butts out of coffee residue. I have painfully smiled away disrespectful and demeaning customers when they find it necessary to ruin your day at all costs.
The people I work with behind the counter have become family. We talk shit and give each other a hard time for messing up an order. We grow enraged over messy eaters and bad tippers. And so it goes, the usual talk of disgruntled workers who rely on tips to pay for their earned rations of cigarettes and beer.
It was here in Portland that my palette changed. I began to respect food culture. Who knew Swiss chard tasted so good in an omelet? And not just any omelet, but one made with eggs from free roaming hens! Yes, they do taste better. I grew to learn, along with my belly, that eating well connects you to a location.
Eating well forced me to cook well, and I loved it. I took a knife skills class and learned how to properly cut an onion. Cookbooks give me hot flashes. Now, obsessed with local food culture and pork belly, I have developed a philosophy of my own. I want to cook well for my family. There is a great calm in being able to do that. I resonate with the words of Justo Thomas, “I got a good job. A good family. I live in peace.”